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‘Prospect of social encounters leads to baseless perception of strangers’

Hope of friendship makes people attribute enhanced physical attributes to strangers, TAU researchers find.

Tel Aviv University doctoral student Natalia Kononov. Credit: Tel Aviv University.
Tel Aviv University doctoral student Natalia Kononov. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

The anticipation of social interactions and the desire to form meaningful connections with others can unconsciously prompt individuals to attribute positive traits to complete strangers, Israeli researchers have found.

A Tel Aviv University study led by doctoral student Natalia Kononov and Professor Danit Ein-Gar sought to uncover how the human inclination to seek out positive social and sensory experiences could influence peoples’ perceptions of unfamiliar individuals.

“In many cases, our innate desire to immerse ourselves in a physically pleasing environment leads us to overestimate even unfamiliar individuals we anticipate interacting with in the future,” said Ein-Gar. “We tend to pre-label those strangers as better-looking and more appealing in the way they sound and smell, despite the fact that we never met them.”

As a result, she explained, people might subconsciously interpret their surroundings in ways that align with their desire for a pleasant sensory experience.

Participants in the study, around 5,000 respondents from the United States, were presented with images of strangers and asked to rate them based on various criteria.

The study employed a two-group design to investigate this phenomenon. One group was instructed to imagine a successful initial encounter with the stranger in the photograph, fostering the intention to cultivate a friendship. The control group, on the other hand, evaluated the person solely based on the photograph.

Regardless of gender, sexual attraction or appearance traits, the key findings were both consistent. When informed that they would be meeting and potentially forming friendships with these strangers, participants exhibited a tendency to attribute enhanced physical attributes to them, including attractiveness, pleasant scent and agreeable voice.

The study also explored scenarios in which participants were informed of their intent to establish a friendship with a stranger, with varying degrees of potential interaction. In all cases the subjects projected positive physical attributes onto these strangers, suggesting a drive to ensure a pleasurable sensory experience when expecting shared interactions.

Kononov clarified that this phenomenon isn’t merely about perceiving someone positively due to personal preferences. Rather, it’s rooted in a subconscious motivation to create a positive reality for oneself.

“When we anticipate spending time with someone, there’s a subconscious incentive for that person to be physically pleasing,” she explained.

The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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